Interview with Director Arlene Dunn

By Anna Guy

“To turn out the safest, most proficient, productive skilled trades people in the world.” The Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU) mandate has remained unwavered in over 50 years. If CBTU members want the public to know one thing about them, its that they will never waiver from their commitment to safety, both in terms of educating/turning out the safest workforce, to advocating for improved safety conditions and safe work sites.

An interesting time in the workforce in general, CBTU has remained stalwart in its focus while also embracing the new and changing face of the global workforce.

When Arlene Dunn became the new Director of CBTU in March 2019, she became the highest-ranking female in not only the unionized sector, but in all of construction world-wide. Dunn exemplifies the evolving face of trades in Canada and internationally, one that is becoming more inclusive and diverse. Having worked over 30 years in the building trades, she says it’s “an honour and a privilege” to represent working men and women who are counting on her and her leadership team to make things better for them, their families and future generations.



The discussion around inclusion has been a helpful component in attracting more women and underrepresented groups to the trades by raising the profile of the trades in general, says Dunn.

“CBTU are huge proponents of, and do a lot of lobbying around, the importance of community benefits agreements and we work with groups like the Toronto Community Benefits Network to bring these to fruition,” says Dunn. “Community benefit agreements ensure inclusion. They allow for increased apprenticeships in the skilled trades, which in turn helps in the development of the local workforce; they allow for the maximization of work-based training and opportunities to grow the skilled workforce, all the while, ensuring Indigenous peoples, women, and other traditionally under-represented groups have priority access to employment and training opportunities.”

As Director, Dunn’s goal is to educate people about the great opportunities the skilled trades offer. “I think the skilled trades offer something no other profession does; they allow you to leave something tangible behind–something you helped build with your own hands and skill sets–something that future generations will see or be able to use and enjoy.”


The Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO represents fifteen Building and Construction Unions in Canada and 38 chartered Local and Provincial Building and Construction Trades Councils across the country.

Currently, CBTU represent over 500,000 skilled trades workers in Canada, who work in every single aspect of construction, from building, fabrication to maintenance and repair in every industry, including nuclear, hydro, pulp and paper, oil refining, and potash. This includes representation in over 60 skilled trades and occupations who contribute to 14 per cent of Canada’s GDP.

“The hands of our members have built and refurbished some of the most incredible, complex construction projects in the history of our country–from the Confederation bridge, the Rideau Canal, the CN Tower and Hebron’s 600,000 tonne gravity based structure—one of the most remarkable, offshore wonders ever built and most impressive engineering feats in the history of Canada. But also, one that achieved the best safety record in the world,” says Dunn.



Safety is paramount for the CBTU, with 174 training centres in Canada and an annual $500M investment in training (750M in brick and mortar), making the CBTU the largest private training providers outside of the U.S. and Canadian militaries.

“On top of all of this, our affiliates, from coast to coast to coast, donate over $15M annually to things like community and economic development, arts and culture, education, health, human rights, public affairs, sports and recreation, to name a few. Their generosity has literally changed hundreds of thousands of lives in Canada—for all citizens, regardless of socio-economic class, location, and/or whether or not they are affiliated with a building trades union.”

Dunn wants to ensure that the push for the skilled trades includes dialogue around the importance of unions. “I think it is important that everyone be able to go to work and focus on their job, earn a decent living and not have to worry about putting money aside for retirement,” says Dunn. “At the end of the day, this really applies to everyone–everyone who does this work deserves a good living wage, good benefits and, the assurance that they can retire with dignity. That is a big part of my job: making sure those considering the skilled trades are also turning their attention to the benefits of belonging to a union.”



The CBTU has BuildTogether chapters across the country. These chapters originally started out as a way to raise the profile of women in trades and provide a support network and now include Indigenous populations, New Canadians, and Youth.

“Through BuildTogether, we highlight the opportunities that exist within the skilled trades for all groups—persons of color, women, youth, Indigenous populations, new Canadians, persons with disabilities,” says Dunn. “We also provide education and support relative to best practices around things like attraction, retention, mentorship and, allyship. Our leaders have been working hard to encourage their members who come from traditionally underrepresented populations to run for elected positions on their executive boards and to take on leadership roles in their organizations.”

CBTU also supports veterans through our Helmets to Hardhat (H2H) program, connecting veterans to training opportunities, jobs and membership into the organized skilled trades.

The result has been an increase in participation from underrepresented groups: CBTU have elected Executive Board members and appointed international representatives who are women; we have persons of color serving as business managers, Indigenous shop stewards and forepersons, to name a few.

“I have a very important message for anyone interested in the skilled trades, but women and under represented groups in particular,” says Dunn. “True financial independence is something that is attainable in the organized skilled trades—if you’re considering the skilled trades, consider the benefits of union membership—they go hand in hand.”